Interview by Leslie Lindsay
Galit Atlas, Ph.D., draws on the emotional power of her patients’ stories and her own life experiences to illuminate the extraordinary ways on which inherited family trauma affects our lives.
Atlas, a psychoanalyst and clinical supervisor in private practice in Manhattan, has published three books for clinicians and numerous article and book chapters focusing primarily on gender and sexuality. Her New York Times publication, “A Tale of Two Twins,” won the 2016 Gravida Award. She teaches and lectures throughout the United States and internationally.
Emotional Inheritance: A Therapist, Her Patients, and the Legacy of Trauma, released by Little, Brown Spark in January 2022 is different from her previous works. Designed for the general public, these precise and emotionally potent stories allow the reader to gain valuable glimpses into the therapist-client relationship (all with consent and pseudonyms). Here, Atlas crosses multiple thresholds of grieving partner, therapist, child as she extracts stories and patterns of behavior. The result is an achingly beautiful and highly resonate collection of case studies nearly everyone will relate, amplifying the universality of a variety of emotional trespasses.
Atlas opens the book by describing how Freud loved Sherlock Holmes. She says psychoanalysts are like detectives as we puzzle through clues to identify and understand the mysteries of the mind. I might liken her to a guide, a real estate agent, or even archaeologist, as she trails along—metaphorically—into the homes of her clients, excavating long-buried memories, resurrecting ancestors, all while exploring the secrets they contain.
Psychoanalysts Nicholas Abrams and Maria Torok indicate that trauma can haunt us from generation to generation, almost like ghosts, “What haunts are not the dead, but the gaps left within the secrets of others.”
For the last several months, I had been haunted by the stories of my ancestors. Who were they? What did they suffer? How might these memories have been transmitted? And more recently: my mother’s tragic history of mental illness, our estrangement, and her eventual suicide.
It’s a late January afternoon when I speak with Dr. Atlas on the phone. I’ve just emerged from the salon, where maybe a slight transformation has occurred, a shedding of layers, and weight. Before interviewing Dr. Atlas, I emailed her some preliminary topics and questions to ponder. Our conversation diverged. At times, it felt like we were colleagues, other times, like friends. And yet, the sense of being in the therapy room arose.
I’ve transcribed our conversation, and it has been edited for length and clarity. Dr. Atlas was warm, gracious, and moving. She spoke generously with me at length.
So come on in. Make yourself comfortable. We want to hear your silence.
Leslie Lindsay: Galit, thank you so much for taking the time to talk with me today. I want to start by asking about the title, Emotional Inheritance. How do you see that phrase relating to the book as a whole?
Galit Atlas: Leslie, I should be thanking you. You know, this book is very personal. I put a lot of myself into these pages. I’ve spent my career studying trauma and sexuality. This one is different in that it encompasses not just those things but a spectrum of emotions. It’s all of them. That’s the ‘emotional’ component. The ‘inheritance’ piece is that those emotions and experiences are transmitted from our parents and grandparents and great-grandparents to the current generation. And maybe even the next. It’s through those raw, unprocessed traumas and experiences that are filtered through their behaviors, statements, and more—even if they are unconscious—and past behaviors are repeated, or we may become unable to move on.
LL: That makes a lot of sense. And I want to get to that, the sense of repetitions versus reparations. But the emotional piece of the book, I felt that. You’re a very empathetic therapist. You cry with your patients. You laugh with them. You feel their feelings. Again, that word, ‘emotion’ floats to the surface.
GA: Thank you for that, Leslie. I narrated the audiobook, and they had to keep stopping the recording because I would be sobbing. I am a person first, a therapist second. To be a therapist, it’s about objectivity, but it’s almost impossible to stay completely objective. You hear the stories—the traumas—of your patients and they start to mingle with your own. My goal with Emotional Inheritance was to make them accessible to a general audience. And to other clinicians. We are a slightly nosey bunch [laughs], we want to know what other therapists are doing in therapy, but that’s not something we can really talk about. I wanted to let friends, family, other therapists behind the door. It’s really about helping others. And there has been incredible support and love from the psychology community.
LL: I think that’s why I love Emotional Inheritance so much. It’s accessible. You don’t have to have a Ph.D. to read it. You don’t have to have experienced a ‘big trauma,’ either. It’s about patterns human behavior and breaking free from troubling experiences. When you speak about trauma, which is a broad term, can you pinpoint exactly what you mean by ‘trauma’?
GA: We talk about “Big T” traumas all the time. 9-11. The Holocaust. Slavery. War. Those things are horrific, “Big T” traumas. What I wanted to explore was not that, although the book does contain chapters on war, PTSD, Auschwitz. Other topics are traumatic as well: death, illness, loss of sleep, connections, even the ability to think clearly. All of these are traumatic on some level, and they are common. I lost my life partner [to cancer], which inspired me to write this book. It was traumatic watching the deterioration of his mind, and in a sense, I struggled deeply with mine, too. These things are not unusual. Is there anything missed, Leslie? For you?
LL:I found the story of Lara wholly engaging. Lara saw you initially as a child. There was the suspicion she was being abused sexually by her older half-brother. But she wasn’t. The more you worked with her, it was discovered that the person who had actually been abused was her grandmother. That story…well, it reminded me of my mother, who was also mentally ill.
GA: Do you want to tell me about that?
LL: When I was a kid, my mother devolved into a psychosis. She was insistent that my sister and I were being sexually abused by our father. We weren’t. She suggested I had repressed the memory. If it wasn’t repressed, she speculated I ‘liked it.’ They were going through a divorce, too, and she insinuated I was ‘replacing’ her by sleeping with my father. I was old enough to understand that she was not in her right mind, these statements were inaccurate and a result of her illness…or her past? But my three-year-old sister was not. My mother and grandmother sort of put notions in her head that she was being sexually abused and provided narratives—stories and images—leading her to believe this was true. Unfortunately, my sister bore the brunt of this…trauma.
GA: That is just extreme and tragic and you know, it happens. It’s very validating to hear you say that, sorry as I am you had to go through that. There’s a theory—the intergenerational treatment of sexual abuse—in which things like this trickle through generations. It’s traumatic to the child, a trusted adult putting sexual thoughts into a child’s mind. A child is not developmentally able to process that information. I would imagine your mother, and probably grandmother, were sexually abused as children?
LL: Yes, that’s exactly right. That all came out then.
GA: Many things like this will surface during an episode of psychosis, like in your mother. It has to do with the nature of their psychosis. Their experiences are unprocessed, unmetabolized. They come out in very discreet, raw forms that can often be damaging to others.
LL: And yet…some of us heal from these horrific events, but not all of us can be so lucky. I’m interested in the ideas of ‘breaking the cycle,’ the concepts of reparation versus repetition. Can you talk about that, please?
GA: It’s a complex relationship…we wish to repair and we try so hard, but sometimes in doing so, we re-traumatize ourselves. The key is to mourn, to grieve. One must begin by looking at the unexamined life. It’s about examining the patterns, the repetitions, unpacking them and making a conscious effort to break them. Somethings cannot be repaired. That’s crucial. We can’t heal our wounded parents. The problem comes when we keep trying. Therapy often helps identify what can be repaired, and what should be mourned.
LL: I think you bring up a good point. Grief. Mourning. There’s another story in Emotional Inheritance, about physical abuse. The case is about a 16-year-old who has endured a broken bone at the hands of her father. She wishes her father dead and posts this on social media. I really identified with that. As a teenager, I said to my dad, “I wish [my severely mentally ill] mom would die. It would be easier.” It sounds so callous, and I don’t believe I really wanted that. Reading this book was the first time I heard a statement like that analyzed. Can you talk about that, please?
GA: Wishing a parent would die comes from lack of agency. In my example in the book, the girl was physically abused. She was in physical and emotional pain. That’s hurtful and traumatic, and with physical abuse, there’s a huge sense of shame. It’s not unusual to want the person responsible for that abuse to disappear. It’s an act of desperation. For you, it was that your mother, who once loved and cared for you, had hurt you deeply. She let you down and you probably lost trust in her. In some paradoxical way, a statement like this breeds hope.
LL: That’s just it. This book instills a sense of hope that things will get better, one can change the direction of their trauma. Galit, this has been so wonderful and I could probably ask questions all day. Before we go, I what two or three things do you hope others get from this book?
GA: This is a good question. First, I want readers to know this is not a prescriptive book. It’s my hope that people will read with reflection and awareness. If you read this book and just one case resonates, or allows you to think about a situation in a new light, then I feel it’s done its job. Maybe [the book] opens people’s minds to therapy. One needs a partner—a guide—to help them see the blind spots; you cannot do it on your own. I really hope that readers will reflect on their own life, mechanisms, and experiences that have held them back.
LL: I can’t imagine a better person to help guide that process. Thank you for this, Galit.
GA: I have enjoyed this so much. It is delightful and moving to talk about such a vulnerable work with with someone so smart and insightful.
Emotional Inheritance: A Therapist, Her Patients, and the Legacy of Trauma, an Amazon Best Book of January, is out now with Little, Brown Spark. Follow Dr. Galit Atlas on Instagram, Twitter, or her website.